Kramer vs. Kramer is a 1979 American drama film adapted by Robert Benton from the novel by Avery Corman, and directed by Benton. The film tells the story of a married couple’s divorce and its impact on everyone involved, including the couple’s young son. It received five Academy Awards in 1979 in the categories of Best Actor, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Director.
Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a workaholic advertising executive who has just been assigned a new and very large account. After being given the news, he returns home to find his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) in the process of leaving him. Saying that she needs to find herself, she leaves Ted to raise their son Billy (Justin Henry) by himself. Ted and Billy begin to resent each other as Ted no longer has time to carry his increased workload, and Billy misses the love and attention he received from his mother. After many months of unrest, Ted and Billy begin to cope with the situation and eventually grow to love and care for one another.
Ted befriends his neighbor Margaret (Jane Alexander), who initially had counseled Joanna to leave Ted. Margaret is a fellow single parent and the two become kindred spirits. One day as the two sit in the park watching their children play, Billy falls off the jungle gym and severely cuts his face on a toy plane he was playing with. Picking him up, Ted sprints several blocks through oncoming traffic to the hospital, where he comforts his son tenderly, representing his increased emotional connection and sense of responsibility for the child since his wife left.
Fifteen months after she walked out, Joanna returns to New York in order to claim Billy, and a custody battle ensues. During the custody hearing, both Ted and Joanna are unprepared for the brutal character assassinations that their lawyers unleash on the other. For instance, Margaret is forced to confess that she advised Joanna to leave Ted if she was as unhappy as she professed, although she also attempts to tell Joanna on the stand that her husband has profoundly changed. Eventually, the damaging facts that Ted was fired because of his conflicting responsibilities with his son, forcing him to take a lower-paid job, come out in court, as do the details of Billy’s accident.
Finally, the court awards custody to Joanna, not so much due to the evidence on both sides but due to the assumption that a child is best raised by his mother. Ted discusses appealing the case, but his lawyer warns that Billy himself would have to take the stand in the resulting trial and Ted cannot bear the thought of submitting his child to such an ordeal. He therefore decides not to contest custody.
On the morning that Billy is to move in with Joanna, Ted and Billy make breakfast together, mirroring the meal that Ted tried to cook the first morning after Joanna left. They hug in a very tender moment as they both know this is their last breakfast together. Joanna calls from the ground floor, asking Ted to come down to talk. She tells Ted that, while she loves Billy and wants him with her, she knows that he is already home, and that his true home is with Ted. She will therefore not take him. As she enters the elevator, she asks her ex-husband “How do I look?”. The movie ends with the elevator doors closing on the emotional Joanna, right after Ted answers, “You look terrific,” as she heads upstairs to talk to Billy.
Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer
Meryl Streep as Joanna Kramer
Justin Henry as Billy Kramer
Jane Alexander as Margaret Phelps
Petra King as Petie Phelps
Melissa Morell as Kim Phelps
Howard Duff as John Shaunessy
George Coe as Jim O’Connor
JoBeth Williams as Phyllis Bernard
Howland Chamberlain as Judge Atkins
Dan Tyra as Court Clerk
Kate Jackson was originally offered the role played by Meryl Streep but was forced to turn it down. At the time, Jackson was appearing in the TV series Charlie’s Angels, and producer Aaron Spelling told her that they were unable to rearrange the shooting schedule to give her time off to do the film. At the time, Streep was cast as Phyllis (the one-night stand Ted has); this role was eventually given to JoBeth Williams when Streep was cast as Joanna.
The film received positive impact from critics, receiving 88% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four stars, giving praise to the screenplay by Robert Benton: “His characters aren’t just talking to each other, they’re revealing things about themselves and can sometimes be seen in the act of learning about their own motives. That’s what makes ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ such a touching film: We get the feeling at times that personalities are changing and decisions are being made even as we watch them.”
Kramer vs. Kramer reflected a cultural shift which occurred during the 1970s and the period of second-wave feminism, when ideas about motherhood and fatherhood were changing. The film was widely praised for the way in which it gave equal weight and importance to both Joanna and Ted’s points of view.
Awards and nominations
The film won 5 Oscars, another 31 wins and 15 nominations.
Academy Award for Best Picture
Academy Award for Best Director
Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role – Dustin Hoffman
Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role – Meryl Streep
Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama
Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama, Dustin Hoffman
Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Supporting Role, Meryl Streep
Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay – Motion Picture
David di Donatello for Best Foreign Film
David di Donatello for Best Foreign Actor (1980) – Dustin Hoffman
Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role – Jane Alexander
Academy Award for Best Cinematography
Academy Award for Best Film Editing
Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role – Justin Henry. To date, Henry is the youngest person ever nominated for an Academy Award.
Golden Globe Award for Best Director – Robert Benton
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Justin Henry
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Jane Alexander
Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture – Male – Justin Henry
BAFTA Award for Best Film – Stanley R. Jaffe
BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role – Dustin Hoffman
BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role – Meryl Streep
BAFTA Award for Best Direction – Robert Benton
BAFTA Award for Best Editing – Gerald B. Greenberg
BAFTA Award for Best Screenplay – Robert Benton
César Award for Best Foreign Film